Unityville, in a corner of Lycoming County in northeastern Pennsylvania, is a place where streams have names like Little Indian Run and Devil Hole Run. This is where Sara Baker ’87 is pursuing a lifelong dream: making a living as professional potter. As with most things that Baker does, her decision to live and work in Unityville was both deliberate and intentional. And practical. She and her husband, Oren Helbok (also a self-employed artist), and their two children are ensconced in this rural part of the world because it’s where they can afford to raise their family and pursue their art.
There also was serendipity in finding this place in the country. Baker and Helbok saw an ad in Ceramics Monthly (the bible for potters), for a house and studio for sale just when Baker was starting to look around for a new place. Touring the property with the owners, established potters David Stabley and Deb Fleck-Stabley, Baker and Helbok were inspired by the possibilities—so inspired that they overlooked details such as plumbing jerry-rigged with a garden hose. In the end, inspiration won out and the domestic details were less worrisome when the Stableys moved not far away and could be called upon for consultation and advice, both with the eccentricities of the house and with the ins and outs of producing, showing, and selling pottery. Helbok, a furniture maker, collaborates with one of the Stableys on some of his pieces. The Stableys have since moved again, and again, another potter noticed the Ceramics Monthly ad and moved into the growing circle of artists in Unityville.
Baker’s signature pottery style is the unique wavy ridges she incorporates in all of her pieces. After she throws the pieces on a wheel, she carefully carves the ridges before firing the piece in a kiln. After glazing, the pieces are fired again. Baker sells wholesale to galleries. She also does retail shows. The pieces sell in the $100 to $165 range.
Baker and Helbok have made a conscious decision to live this independent life. Their children, Maia, 6, and Jeremy, 3 1/2, attend a local Friends school. The two artists manage to work 25 to 30 hours each week, switching off childcare duties. “It’s cheap to live here, and we made a decision to be home with our kids,” Baker explains. “We really didn’t see the point in having kids if someone else was going to raise them. There are tradeoffs to pursuing an ideal. We are in a constant financial struggle—you have to sell a lot of $165 pots to make a mortgage payment.
To address this issue, Baker has made changes to her work, creating more larger, more elaborate pieces (requiring one to three hours of carving) and developing a sophisticated new glazing process until she was convinced that her pieces’ aesthetic appeal had won out over function. The larger pieces command higher prices, in the range of $200 to $300 each. Part of this process was driven by Baker’s desire to cut back on wholesale and retail show travel to free up more time for Maia and Jeremy. The more elaborate pieces, she has found, are in demand at juried shows. Her functional pots, while providing Baker’s main income stream, are rarely featured at these shows.
“I am still learning and experimenting,” Baker wrote in the March 2003 issue of Ceramics Monthly, “and I have a long way to go before the idea is exhausted. If this work can sustain a reasonable standard of living (I don’t anticipate driving a Lexus, but out children deserve choices when they reach college age), my artistic aspirations will mesh with my financial needs, an ideal situation not yet achieved but desperately desired."